Monday, 27 December 2010


When I think of my childhood Christmases, my mind is flooded with memories of Christmas cakes from the pasticceria and home made struffoli. I still crave for them every year. As I live now in Lucca and I do not have a Neapolitan pasticceria nearby, my nostalgia is soothed by making struffoli myself.
Struffoli are sweet fried dumplings coated with honey syrup. They are a very archaic recipe probably going back to Ancient Greece as Naples was founded by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC.
Today struffoli use sugar as an ingredient but last year I tried to imagine how my Classical Greek ancestors could have made them so I recreate a honey only version and it worked very well.
This is the recipe my mother used. I love it because it is very tasty and it’s not too rich.


Serves 10

Flour: 1 pound (450 grams) plus a little extra if required  
Granulated Sugar: 4 ounces plus 4 ounces
6 regular size eggs
2 ounces (55 g) unsalted butter at room temperature
The grated rind of 1 unwaxed and untreated Orange
The grated rind of 1 unwaxed and untreated Lemon
Brandy: 1 tablespoon (15 ml)
A pinch of salt
½ pound  (225 g)  good quality honey
Good frying oil (sunflower or peanut)
4 ounces ( 110 g) of candied lemon peel
4 ounces (110g) of candied orange peel
hundred of thousands to decorate
silver/gold balls
Water: 2 Tbsp (30 ml)

1) On a pastry board place the flour in a mound and make a well in the centre. Have the extra flour ready in case it is needed.
Put 3 eggs and 3 egg yolks in the hole making sure that they do not overflow.
Add 4 ounces of granulated sugar and the butter, a pinch of salt, the  grated lemon and orange rind and the brandy.

2) Using a wooden spoon start mixing slowly from the centre of the well making sure that the liquid does not spill over.
Slowly incorporate the flour.
When the dough becomes denser start mixing it with your hands and finish incorporating all the flour. If the dough is too wet add some of the extra flour.
Make the dough uniform in colour and consistency and shape it like a ball and wrap it in cling film (this stops it drying out).
The dough must rest for 1 hour at least in a cool place.

3) After the resting time remove the cling film and divide into smaller pieces.
Each section must now be rolled into a long sausage about ½ inch/1.5cm thick.
Cut the sausages into small 1/3 inch/1cm dumplings (the size of the dumplings is not canonical, some people likes them very small)
Place all the dumplings on a clean tea towel.

4) Pour enough frying oil into a deep frying pan and heat the oil slowly. Do not overheat the oil.
If you think that the oil has reached a good temperature add one dumpling. If it starts frying you can add a small load of dumplings. Turn them using a frying spoon so they brown evenly. In about two minutes they turn golden so remove them from the oil and place them on kitchen paper to dry. Fry the rest of the dumpling in small loads making sure that they do not turn too brown so be quick to remove them from the hot oil when they’re ready.

5) Now in a saucepan put the honey, 4 ounces/100g of sugar and the water. Heat it slowly and stir continuously with a wooden spoon. When the sugar and the honey are melted and look like syrup, test its consistency by pouring a drop on a cold plate. It has to settle like jam. Make sure you do not burn it!
Turn the flame off and slowly add all the dumplings, the orange and lemon candied peel. Now with a large spoon very gently start moving them in the pan so they can be coated with the syrup. Do it with care as you do not want to break the dumplings.

6) Pour them on a serving plate in the shape of a volcano (some people prefer the shape of a ring).
Scatter hundreds and thousands on the top and then add the silver/gold balls to decorate.

Wait until the syrup has settled and they’re cold before serving. 

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Penne with Green Cauliflower

Yesterday I took a ten minutes break after a busy morning in front of my computer screen. I went out, bought a newspaper and couldn’t resist a quick detour to our local greengrocer where I saw a beautiful green cauliflower, so beautiful that it looked liked a piece of art, a great sculpture. I couldn’t spend my time admiring it, so bought it. I love the fact that this shop has a neat pile of paper bags of varying size to put the fruit and vegetables in and not the normal role of mangled plastic bags. I moved to the till.

It was nearly lunch time so it could be used immediately. Because the way our life is arranged we are still able to keep the Italian tradition of lunch as the main meal.
Back home I put the green cauliflower on a cloth as I didn’t really want to cut it. Somebody told me that they are green because during their growth the leaves are removed so the exposed flower starts producing chlorophyll and turns emerald. Other sources claim that it is an hybrid between white cauliflower and broccoli.

I decided to prepare a quick Pasta con Cavolfiore (Pasta with cauliflower). I had a look on the kitchen shelves and found garlic, black olives and capers. I always keep fresh flat parsley in a little vase.

I have used local black olives that are very tasty. Try to find good olives as canned pitted olives are often tasteless. I didn’t have the time and the energy to pit the olives so if you want to emulate me, please mind your teeth! Do use capers kept in salt; avoid capers in vinegar, so far I’ve not been able to work out what they’re for.

Penne con Cavolfiore Verde - Penne with Green Cauliflower

Serves 4
Time: 30 minutes


1 medium size green cauliflower
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 clove of garlic
30 black pitted olives
1 or 2 tablespoons of capers preserved in salt. Rinsed.
1 pound (450 grams) penne
Sea salt as required

1. Fill a large saucepan with water, add the required salt and boil while you are preparing the cauliflower.

2. Remove the leaves and cut the cauliflower into florets.

3. Place the florets in a steamer and steam them until they can be pierced with a fork (about 10 min)

4. While the two saucepans are performing their duty put on a low flame a large frying pan with the olive oil, a chopped clove of garlic and the olives. Cook for 3 minutes or until the garlic turns light golden then add the rinsed capers and the chopped parsley.

5. Put the pasta in the boiling water.

6. The cauliflower should be ready by now so add it to the frying pan. Add some hot water from the steamer when required. Keep cooking. I did not add salt because both the olives and the capers are salty but if you like more “saporito” taste and do not have problems with your arteries, add your required amount.

7. After draining the pasta add it to the frying pan and mix all with a wooden spoon.

8. Serve it

It took about half an hour to prepare this beautiful tasty and healthy dish. I don’t know if it is just my impression but I find the green cauliflower more intense and sweeter in taste. We all loved this dish.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Gualtiero Marchesi

Memorable things often happen unexpectedly. I was wandering around Il Desco, Lucca food show, when I saw Gualtiero Marchesi , the great Milanese Chef, talking to a worshipping little crowd in a room. I tried to found a little niche but the best place I could sneak in had a glass door in front of me and I couldn’t really hear him. So feeling a bit discouraged I slipped out to continue my exploration of the show. I caught up with Celia and told her that I had recently seen his cookery book and I would like to own a copy. Half an hour later we found ourselves in the same place. I noticed that a small stall had a copy of his book (Celia bought it for me) and Gualtiero Marchesi was still in the room talking to a few people. I kind of joined in the conversation, which was about his way of cooking. He is strong about the idea that cuisine moves on and he has lightened his dishes unlike some traditional cooks – and he mentioned a French starred one who is a good friend of his and has had the same menu for 50 years. I asked if he still has his restaurant and he replied that it is in Erbusco, near Brescia.

I knew that he had a disagreement with the Michelin guide and as a result his restaurant is now only mentioned in the book. His restaurant was the first to be awarded the three stars in Italy.
When he heard my name he immediately said “You must be Neapolitan” . Then I offered the book for him to sign.
He was wearing his iconic coat with cape sleeves which I see him wearing in most of his pictures. He is now 80 but looked in his late sixties. I can say that if you love food you will keep very young!
I am very honoured to have met him even if only briefly.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Crude Milk Pecorino

Yesterday in the supermarket I found a piece of mature pecorino cheese on offer. What attracted my attention was that it was made from “latte crudo”, unpasteurized milk. In Italy farmers after years of lobbing have been allowed to sell unpasteurised milk directly to the public with the blessing of the local and EU bureaucracy. Consumers can buy this milk from dispensers placed in strategic places. They just need to bring a bottle and a few coins.

The raw milk pecorino cheese tastes completely different to a pasteurised ewe's milk cheese. It is sweeter and has got a rounder taste. A chunk of the cheese with a slice of  wholemeal bread made a perfect lunch. I craved for half a glass of red wine to top it off but had to work and also drive in the afternoon so I will test that combination another time.

In this area some people eat pecorino with a spot of chestnut honey, which is produced locally.  The strong smoky taste of the honey brings out the true flavour of the cheese. I didn’t have honey either with me.
It has been raining for the last few days but yesterday there was a gap between  two low pressure systems. It was sunny and warm and Nature looked cheerful again.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Pizzaiola (Neapolitan Nostalgia under the Leaning Tower of Pisa)

What if suddenly one needs to organise an impromptu meal. Before emails and mobile phones people in Italy used to pop in to say hello and if the conversation was getting close to lunch or supper time, how could one be a good host while still conversing and not getting into a state. I have a cousin (now a diplomat) who was a globe trotter in the happy hippy time and would appear unannounced on our door step. He was always very welcome and he would recount his latest journey to us.

My mother who had never been a traveller became through him a kind of adventurer by proxy, having in this virtual way visited many places, some of them at that time off the beaten track, such as Pakistan and Iceland. She would quickly write a note and slip it my pocket saying: “ buy what’s on the list”. I was 10sh or so. One particular meal was the Pizzaiola. I only needed to get some thin sliced beef from the local butcher, just down the road. Pasta, tomatoes and olive oil  were always in the cupboard.

Today in Pisa the weather was not really promising. It is all Saints Day which is a holiday in Italy. I manage to park the car in a parking free area just outside the old city walls. The appointment was in Piazza dei Miracoli but as soon as I left the car it started raining and after a couple of minutes it was really cats and dogs, so heavy that I could hardly see. Within minutes my trousers and waterproof shoes got soaked despite the umbrella. I decided to walk on. I missed Celia, who having spotted me, rung me on the mobile phone. She was with a bunch of drenched tourists squashed against a cathedral exit, trying to avoid the torrential rain. I quickly found my little slot next to her while she was chatting with a young lady. The rain seemed to increase and I suddenly became aware that the tower was in front of me, just a few meters away. The girl was telling Celia that her last trip was to Spain and it had never stopped raining. She was lamenting her personal lack of weather luck. She said that she was from Caserta and she was visiting Tuscany with her parents. I then pavlovianly asked “what do you eat there?” The answer was: “more or less what you Napolitans eat but I personally hate onions and here in Tuscany it seems I can’t avoid them”. So she went on to say that yesterday in Florence she had a sudden bout of nostalgia and looked desperately for a Neapolitan restaurant until she found it, having questioned every single local. I started feeling homesick.

The rain suddenly stopped and Celia and I decided to walk into the old town towards Borgo Stretto, and have a coffee at Salza an historical ‘pasticceria e cioccolateria’ to cheer ourselves up and forget our soaked feet. The coffee was excellent and on my request they also allowed me to snap a few pikkies. The cakes and the chocolates  looked mouthwatering. Isabella, who had been there on several occasions, says that the gelato is superb.

We walked to the Arno river and then to the Teatro Verdi to meet Isabella. She was full of energy and hungry. We had to return quickly to Lucca as she had to finish her homework. “I know what we are going to eat today, we are going to have a full Neapolitan meal,  primo and secondo and it’s going to be quick” I said.
“How quick?” Celia enquired “five minutes, ten minutes, that’s what I mean quick”.
“Twenty minutes, you cannot have a two course cooked meal for less than that. You are going to have spaghetti alla pizzaiola and carne alla pizzaiola. Less then half an hour later we were home and after a quick change of clothes I started cooking.

Spaghetti alla Pizzaiola & Carne alla Pizzaiola

Serves 4 people


2 ½  tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
800 grams (3 cups) tinned chopped San Marzano tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
½ teaspoon of oregano (or more if you like it)
grated parmesan cheese

4 thin slices of (sirloin) beef

450 grams (1 pound) Spaghetti

1.When you’re cooking a quick pasta dish you need some co-ordination. First thing to do is to put a large saucepan filled with water on the stove (add the required salt).
Put the pasta in as soon as the water is boiling and cook al dente.

2. Put the olive oil and garlic in a large frying pan cook over a low heat until the garlic is light golden, then add the chopped tomatoes, the oregano and the required salt.

3. When the sauce bubbles add the meat. Lie the slices down without overlapping them.

4. Cook for ten minutes and turn them over once half way through.

5. Remove the meat and place it on a serving plate with some sauce on the top.

6. Drain the pasta.

7. Mix the rest of the sauce with the pasta in a nice big bowl. When serving the pasta add a sprinkle of parmesan cheese on top and ground pepper if you like it. This is the primo then the secondo will be the meat (or you can serve the pasta and the meat in a large flat dish if you prefer a Piatto Unico.

My nostalgia did not extend to wine so we washed it down with a glass of Gaillac, a bottle I bought a few months ago in France.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Tuscan Meals

Is there such a thing as a typical Tuscan meal? That is the question and a difficult one to answer. The Tuscan Region is large, has a long coastline and hills, mountains and rivers.  The agriculture is as diverse as the landscape although there is a common denominator: Cucina Toscana is “cucina povera”, which means local ingredients and simple cooking. Generally Tuscan food is earthy and filling, especially in our part of Northern Tuscany.

We are surrounded by mountains and woodland. Agriculture is hill or even mountain farming. Life in the past was hard and people are still sturdy. In Lucchesia where we live ingredients are beans, spelt, corn, chestnuts, black cabbage, mushrooms, olives, honey, ricotta and meat, a lot of meat: wild boar, beef, rabbit and pork.

A Tuscan meal is always momentous. Most locals still retain the traditional attitude to transform what the land can offer into something memorable.

Recently we had a few excellent home made feasts. We were invited by our friends, we cooked for our friends, cooked with them and had people cooking for us all.
In one particular occasion the meal was lucullan at the very least and I am going to list the courses and through my future posts recreate the recipes.

To give you an idea this is a selection from various menus:

Drinks and Stuzzichini (nibbles): mini crostini and olives

Zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and herbs
Bruschetta with fresh tomatoes
Crostini with chicken liver paté
Crostini with soft cheese and sausage meat
Potato cakes
Marinated eggplant
Cured meat: Prosciutto, Pancetta, Soppressata, Salame
Farro Salad
Mildly hot red peppers stuffed with tuna and caper sauce
Pecorino served with chestnut honey

Home made egg pasta with ragù sauce
Risotto with local wild Porcini mushrooms

Then a home made limoncello liqueur, acting as a lemon sorbet to prepare the palate for the next stage

Rosticciana (pork ribs) with olives
Roasted vegetables

Frutta & Dolce
Fresh fruit Tart served with a dessert wine, Vino Fragolino, made with strawberry grapes, an antique variety that is still popular in our hills.

When confronted with the Tuscan feast it’s important to remember to pace oneself!

On another occasion we had a really spectacular three colour pasta with mushrooms. The Red came from tomatoes, the white was plain egg pasta and the green was achieved by rubbing nettles into the dough. Nettles is something to investigate further in the future.

Wines on the tables were mostly earthy Chianti, Colline Lucchesi red and white. We also drunk Prosecco, which not being a Tuscan wine, was a concession to the modern age.